How to make the Council Approval process easier

17 Jul, 2016 Blog, Design Tips

The large majority of the landscape and urban design projects we design, require some level of approval from the Local Council authority, and on some occasions, approval from various State Government authorities as well. If you understand the local government approval process, you are doing better than most. However, even if you do understand the process, it can still be complicated, involved and often frustrating.

Even projects we design directly for Council require approval from various other internal council divisions.  However, regardless of the project, we have found one common practice that will deliver the best results for quick and favourable approvals.

Every project comes to fruition through a collaboration of all parties – client, consultant team, stakeholders and local authorities – striving to reach the most suitable outcome possible while balancing all interests.   So many factors are involved and intertwined: client requirements and desires, project budgets, stakeholder interests, designers striving for innovative and unique solutions and of course, statutory requirements.

The best (and most satisfying) projects are cohesive efforts built on trust, communication and collaboration.  This applies to all parties involved.

Dealing with the Local Authorities can be a rewarding experience, or the opposite. We have consistently found that the most effective approach is one of complete transparency. One that empowers and encourages the relevant Council officers to ‘take ownership’ with your ideas and vision throughout the project.  That way there are no ‘surprises’ when it comes to the pointy end of delivering the project.

If your negotiations with Council begin at the start of the project, the process will be far more successful for all concerned. Everyone accepts the broader strategies and understands what’s coming, is happy with the design and the ensuing documentation, and the requests for information and conditions tend to be minor.

Here are a few key pointers to help make your project process a successful one, not a stressful one:

1. Getting to know Council

Establish a relationship with the relevant Council officers.  You might have dealt with them before, or maybe they are new at Council.  Take the time to meet with them frequently – and not just about the project – let them know you are serious about achieving the best results and want them to be part of the process. Drop in, or if you are at Council for other business, just say hi. If you can make the primary officer your champion for the project, this will go a long way to unifying the sometimes disparate assessment parties within Council.

While your local Councillor does not play a detailed role in the approval process, getting to know the Local Councillor and their vision for their divisional area is important. Introducing the vision for your project and how it supports the Local Councillor’s vision for their local area can help to gain their support and buy-in, especially if you are attempting to push new thinking and an alternative innovative approach.

2. Early involvement

At project start up, invite the relevant Council assessment officers to attend the preliminary team meetings, meet the client, come to the design workshops, and if possible a site visit. If you do this as early in the project as you can, you are a long way in front to achieving a collaborative union.  Ask questions about what you can achieve.  Will that big idea get endorsement? It will have a greater chance of success if you involve the assessment officer early on, to discuss, evolve and hone the outcomes.

3. Good things come to those who Communicate

Get on the phone – discuss ideas and options, meet face to face whenever possible and convenient. Leaving all communication to the last minute (submission time) won’t win hearts and minds. And don’t leave all the communication up to your well-developed email skills.  A voice and a face achieve a much better result (as they do in all our life dealings). It saves a lot of time in the long run, and reinforces the relationship (see step 1).

4. Know the Parameters

Make it your mission to know what you need to know for this project.  Dealing with a Council for the first time?  Find out who to deal with (see above) and importantly, find out what the rules and regulations are that you have to satisfy. Been there before? Make sure you do your homework, and find out if anything has changed, or if there is something very specific you need to address. Don’t assume it will be same old same old for this project as the last one you did.

So dealing with Council doesn’t have to be complicated.  They are people doing a job, just like us, and have to achieve the best outcomes they can for their employers.  It’s about adopting a few basic life skills really – establish a relationship and get to know the people involved, earn their trust and vice versa, get them on board early, communicate with them as you would a friend, and know the rules before you attempt to test them. It’s a collaboration that once established will take you through many a successful project journey.

Three key takeaways

1. If Council understand your vision and are collaboratively involved in refining your projects strategic objectives, the greater ownership they will take and the easier the approval process will be.

2. Council officers responsible for approving your project also have strategic requirements as part of their role; take the time to understand their needs and consider them in your designs, the easier the approval process will be.

3. Engage Council face to face early in the process of design, value their input, consider their requirement, respectfully challenge and debate any current thinking; and you will have a greater chance of getting those innovative ideas approved.

Vee Design